Ashok R . Kelkar



Interdisciplinary Studies:The How and the Why


Interdisciplinary studies have gained some prominence in recent decades.  To begin with, they were ‘borderline’ fields – like astrophysics or bio-chemistry (the latter with its recent offshoot, molecular biology) among  the natural sciences, or economic history or social psychology among the human sciences, or geopolitics or physical anthropology across the boundary between these two groups.  Later, there came a slow and reluctant realisation that some of the customary ‘borderlines’ are disappearing. Thus physical chemistry proved to be not merely a borderline field but made one realize that physics-cum-chemistry is really a single field, the division being at best a practical convenience.  Similarly, it became increasingly difficult (inspite of persistent loyalties and quasi-tribal hostilities) to keep apart cultural anthropology, social anthropolgy, sociology, and social psychology.


            Actually, the ‘borderlines’ have a way of turning out to be new frontiers or the growth points of human knowledge.  It is no wonder, therefore, that there arose the so-called ‘unified science’ movement originating in Vienna but based at Chicago University which resulted in the bringing out of the first two volumes the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science in the late 1930s.  More recently, studies of a circumscribed subject-matter by a team of persons representing different disciplines became popular.  Area studies are a good example of this trend. These are, of course, more properly called multidisciplinary studies rather than interdisciplinary studies.  Useful as these are, they are but a preparation for a proper inter-disciplinary studies.  Useful as these are, they are but a preparation for a proper interdisciplinary approach.  If the limited reach of such multi-disciplinary.


Note: An earlier shorter version was presented at the Seminar on Interdisciplinary Studies.  University of Poona, on 27-28 July 1984 under the title ‘Inter-disciplinary Studies in Relation to Human Sciences and Humanities’. studies is mistaken for interdisciplinary study, the result is mere confusion, rather than a disciplined and purposeful integration.  (As a wag has said, the ‘multidisciplinary approach’ is often misnamed the ‘interdisciplinary approach’ when the right name should be ‘indisciplinary approach’!) Finally, we have seen the rise of fields like cybernetics and semiotics which seen inherently to cut across or bind across disciplines.


            The term ‘human sciences’ though common in French, is somewhat of a newcomer to English.  In India we sometimes use the more laboured designation ‘mental, moral, and social sciences,’ but more often make the term ‘social sciences’ to embrace the whole group. In the United States the term ‘behavioural sciences’ is sometimes used.  In this study, the term ‘human sciences’ will be used.


            The term ‘humanities’ is now being increasingly preferred to its two close competitors, namely, ‘arts’ and  ‘philosophy’ (as in ‘Faculty of Arts’ or ‘Doctor of Philosophy’) since these latter two terms are more commonly used in a more restricted sense, namely, ‘fine and performing arts’ and ‘metaphysical studies’ respectively. (The Americans avoid the ambiguity between the two senses of ‘arts’ by speaking of ‘liberal arts’ in the sense of ‘humanities’.) Many Indian are not even aware of the existence of two senses for the term ‘arts’, blissfully translating it as kalā in either sense. (Some have now suggested that ‘arts’ in the sense of ‘humanities’ be rendered as mānavya vidyā or mānavya for short, the term kalā being reserved for ‘fine arts’.)


            Before we turn to our main topic it will perhaps be useful to present a brief overview of the whole territory within which interdisciplinary studies) from now on we shall use the convenient shorthand IDS) may expect to operate


An Overview of Sciences and Humanistic Disciplines


We shall not attempt any rigorous definition of the term ‘science’. Without departing from its customary range that sometimes includes, say, logic but leaves out, say, literature of even philosophy, we can describe it in some such terms.  Science includes both a collection of certain activities – asking question about thing and events in the observable world, experimenting with them if necessary and feasible, describing and analysing and explaining them in the course of answering those question, testing and checking these answers into a logical system - and also, at the same time, a body of knowledge resulting from such activities.  Sciences can be broadly divided into two groups: (A1) deductive sciences and (A2) empirical sciences.  The former are not ‘about’ anything, and so do not send us out looking at and looking for things in the world.  These cover logic and mathematics (mathematics may also be said to include statistics). Logic and mathematics may be used as tools for empirical sciences; alternatively, we may say that an empirical science at its best is couched in the language of mathematics and mathematical logic.  The rest are empirical sciences, which may in turn be divided into (A2a) natural sciences and (A2b) human sciences.


            Now it may be asked why we cannot consider the human sciences as but branches of a single field of enquiry, the science of man. The field may, in turn, be considered to be a branch of zoology and so fall simply under natural sciences.  There are two ways of arguing against this rather extreme view.  The more defensive argument is that the study of man is in its infancy and still far from graduating as a proper natural science aspiring for deductive rigour.  Eventually it will no doubt do so, the reason for this optimism being, for example, the rise of the rigorous methods in linguistics and economics.  The more aggressive argument against merging human science into natural sciences is the claim that the study of man calls for an approach that is fundamentally different from the approach of natural sciences. The subject-matter is too slippery for rigorous formulation and too value-laden for aseptic neutrality.  Without going into the merits of these arguments we can for our present purpose simply accept the division as a fact of academic life today.


            Natural sciences can, in turn, be divided into (A2a1) physical sciences, namely, physics, chemistry, astronomy, earth sciences and (A2a2) life sciences, namely, biology, microbiology, botany, zoology, ethology and ecology.  Human sciences can be grouped into (A2b1) global fields covering the totality of man’s life, namely, psychology, anthropology, and sociology and (A2b2) specific fields covering particular aspects of man’s life, such as, economics, politics, linguistics, and comparative religion.


            It will be noticed that, with the possible exception of astronomy and earth sciences, all the empirical disciplines listed so far are essentially universalistic in the sense that they are not primarily concerned with the state of affairs at a particular place or time.  They have no use for proper names, so to say.  Does this not mean that there is a form of knowledge, distinct form and somewhat opposed to, empirical sciences? Let us coin a term for this form of knowledge; we shall call it (B) ‘survey knowledge’.  In survey knowledge, if the time dimension is prominent we call it history; if the place dimensions are prominent we call it geography.  Astronomy, earth sciences, and life survey, among the natural sciences, have got both (B1a) a historical aspect and (B1b) a geographical aspect. (We can and do speak without any sense of incongruity about the history of the earth or of insects or about zoo-geography or the world distribution of chemical elements.) How about human sciences? Indeed, one of the ways in which their subject matter is said to call for an approach that is fundamentally different from the approach of the natural sciences is that man’s life cannot be understood apart from its history.  (Perhaps, we can add in the same breath, ‘and geography’.)


            Human history (B2a2) in its cruder phase – when its relation to human science is not yet fully taken into account – may be called (B2a1) human chronicle.  Human geography (B2b2) in its cruder phase - when its relation to human science is not yet fully taken into account – may be called (B2b1) human gazetteer.  Human chronicle and history and human gazetteer and geography may together be called (B2) human survey knowledge and are thus distinguished from (A2) human sciences.  The interaction between these two bodies of knowledge is bilateral – human survey knowledge provides the raw evidence for human sciences and human sciences help to make sense of what would otherwise be mere chronicles or gazetteers.  This interaction involves the processing and interpreting of evidence on man’s life in the past as well as in the present.


            Some of the methods of doing this that serve as tools for human history are: archaeology dealing with material evidence; philology, diplomatics, and epigraphy dealing with different kinds of written textual evidence; folkloristics dealing with different kinds of oral evidence; and content analysis dealing with the evidence from mass media.  Archaeology and the rest are not fields of knowledge so much as tools of human pre-history, proto-history, history, pre-geography, proto-geography, and geography.


            Correspondingly, palaeobotany, palaeontology, and possibly others will be tools in the natural domain.  Persons operating these tools of survey knowledge will need the qualities of thoroughness and controlled imagination needed in crime detection.  What is called for is long experience and specialized knowledge of the possibly relevant facts.  The leads to specialization – by period (medievalist), by area (indologist), by subtype (philology of manuscripts and of printed texts), and by specific focus (archaeology of monuments and of sculpture, and content analysis of silent cinema.


            In our customary academic organisation, survey knowledge in the natural domain (B1) is counted simply as natural sciences - astronomy, earth sciences, biohistory, and biogeography, while survey knowledge in the human domain tends to get sliced up among the human sciences and humanities into social history, economic history, economic geography, art history, and the like.


            That brings us to our last halt in the overview of knowledge.  Humanities of humanistic studies (C) customarily include the study of literary art, the study of other fine arts like the visual and the performing arts, the study of myth, magic, ritual, and religion, and philosophy (inclusive of theology).  In the customary academic set-up, some aspects of human survey knowledge (such as history, philology, diplomatics, epigraphy, and folkloristics) are also often aligned with humanistic studies rather than with human sciences.  Actually they should be allowed to stand on their own.  Even a human science like linguistics, because of its traditional association with philology and the study of literary art, often gets recruited under humanistic studies.


            The distinction between human sciences and humanities is not easy to draw, and the vagaries and uncertainties of academic customs is only part of the reason for this state of uncertainty.  Broadly, we can say that humanities involve a sensitive, personal, intuitive handling of evidence that is less susceptible to routinization, statistics or computerization.  If human sciences are slippery in content in comparison to natural sciences, humanistic studies are even more slippery.  We can also say that when human sciences come nearest humanities – for example, ‘philosophical’ or introspective psychology or comparative religion – they come closer to the designation of moral sciences or Geisteswissenschaften.  The latter term is probably a German rendering of John Stuart Mill’s phrase, moral sciences.


            The foregoing overview (Table 1) though it is necessarily sketchy and skirts deeper philosophical issues should nevertheless serve as a useful backdrop to our more immediate concern, namely, the how and the why of IDS.


Table 1

An Overview of Human Knowledge (Part I)


A    Sciences

A.1 Deduction science / logic (including mathematical logic), mathematics (including meta-mathematics, statistics)

A.2 Empirical sciences (‘about’ something)

A  2a Natural sciences

A 2a1 Physical sciences / physics, chemistry – astronomy, earth sciences (geology, physiography or physical geography)

A 2a2 Life sciences / biology, ethology, ecology – microbiology, botany, zoology

A 2b Human sciences

               A 2b1 Global fields / psychology, anthropology, sociology

A2b2 Specific focus fields / economics, politics, linguistics, comparative religion, jurisprudence, comparative technics and biotechnics, defence studies.


B Survey Knowledge

B 1 In the natural domain

B1a Historical aspect / astronomical history, earth history, biohistory

B1b Geographical aspect

B 2b1 Human gazetteer (including area studies)

B 2b2 Human geography / pre-geography, proto-geography, geography (these can be global or with a specific focus)


Note: The following are the tools of human survey knowledge: archaeology (bodily remains, material artefact remains) – philology, diplomatics, epigraphy (literary, documentary, inscriptional written textual remains) – folkloristics (oral evidence) and content analysis (evidence from mass media).  They scrutinize different kinds of evidence for human history and geography. C Humanistic Studies / Literary studies and fine art studies (focussing on evaluation, interpretation, or manifestation) – studies in narratives (including sacred narratives or myths), rites (including sacred rites or rituals), magic (including sacred magic or tantra), and ideologies (including sacred ideologies or religious beliefs and norms) – philosophical critique or philosophy (global: ontology, epistemology, axiology, praxiology, cosmology, theology – specific focus: ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of science, social philosophy, philosophy of history, philosophy of education, and so on).


The Motivation of Interdisciplinary Studies


Why does one go in for IDS at all? What prompts an investigator to cross the boundary between disciplines? We have to distinguish between drives that help us to keep up the effort needed to sustain IDs, on the one hand, and goals that prefigure the desire end-products of IDs and arise out of the inherent intellectual needs, on the other.


            We shall quickly look at possible drives.  These essentially derive from specific historical circumstances.  For example, the desire of developed countries to understand the underdeveloped countries to exploit them more; the popular expectation that IDS brings the investigator more generous funding or a ready reputation; and the mistaken notion that IDS is relatively less demanding of intellectual effort.  Powerful as some of these drives may be, they concern us less.  We shall be more concerned with the possible intellectual goals or intellectual reasons for IDS.


            The first such reason is that the search for particularistic knowledge or survey knowledge (as we have decided to call it here) demands the convergence of two or more generalizing, universalistic empirical sciences.  Thus, descriptive astronomy calls for the application of physics and, thanks to the spectrographic method, chemistry, giving rise to hyphenated disciplines like astrophysics and astrochemistry.  Human geography, again, could be economic geography, political geography, or even linguistic geography.  The same goes for human history.  A historian or an archaeologist has to acquire, if he takes his work seriously, competence in a variety of disciplines. A somewhat different set of examples of this motivation is provided by the case where a relatively more global discipline can offer explanatory tools for a more restricted discipline. Thus, biochemistry and, thanks to electronic recording methods, biophysics seek to explain the physical foundations of many life processes.  To take an example from the human domain, while linguistics studies language as language, other more global disciplines like psychology, ethnology (cultural anthropology), sociology, or even logic may converge on language and offer at least partial explanations for the linguistic processes proper.  For example, grammatical structures cannot be so complicated as to tax the listener’s memory too much or to tax the child’s language learning capacity too much.


            The second reason is actually very close to the first reason: it is that the practical application of universalistic sciences to practical problems almost invariably demands the convergence of two or more disciplines as well as the use of survey knowledge on a large scale.  While a science has to abstract a specific aspect of reality that is relevant to its concerns and amenable to its methods, coping with practical problems often demands coping with reality in its full messy complexity.  Engineering, for example, has to draw upon various branches of physics, upon chemistry, even upon earth sciences and upon economics.  This is even more true of veterinary medicine and human medicine (including the newest branch of medical engineering).  To take a more specifically human example, education is not merely applied psychology (as it was at one time believed to be the case any more than agriculture is merely applied botany (See Table 2).



Table 2

An Overview of Human Knowledge (Part II)


D    Practical knowledge (including practical arts)

D 1 Physical domain: technics/engineering, industrial chemistry, manufacture (of sugar, paper, and so on), environmental control and adaptation, crafts.


D 2 Life domain: biotechnics /microbioculture – agriculture, horticulture, sylviculture-animal husbandry, veterinary medicine- human medicine, public health and sanitation-manufacture, processing, environmental control and adaptation involving life processes.


D 3 Human domain/education, communication, law, criminology, defence and military techniques, etiquette and protocol, administration and management, advertisement, propaganda, diplomacy, scientific methodology, research methodology, information storage and retrieval, recording and dissemination media, chronicle and gazetteer methodology.


D4 Humanistic domain/creative and critical writing, oral interpretation, effective speaking and writing, literary technique, fine art techniques, narrative skills, rite and magic skills, skills of recreational arts (sports, circus, games, athletics), techniques of philosophical analysis and critique, ideological (and religious) apologetics.


            The third reason to provide an intellectual goal to IDS has to do with the human domain and it stems from two insights alluded to earlier, namely:

1.      A consideration of man’s life, of human affairs cannot be separated from the values that inform them.

2.      The human domain cannot be understood apart from its history and geography-apart from the identification of the specific community and its specific way of life.

One consequence of the present-day organisation of academic studies in the human domain (whether falling under human sciences or under human survey knowledge or humanistic studies) is that they tend to be defined by period, area, vehicle or channel, and specific focus – in short, they tend to be defined by tradition. Example would be Western/ Indian philosophy, Islamic/classical Indian/Graeco-Roman graphic arts/sculpture/architecture.  English/French/Sanskrit/Chinese medieval European literature, Celtic/Roman/Greek/Germanic/Vedic mythology, romantic/Marxist/classical Indian literary theory and criticism, Roman/Islamic/Hindu law, Black studies, feminist studies, and so on.  The limitations of the practice of having tradition-oriented disciplines are often realized and as a countervailing measure the academics initiate comparative aesthetics, comparative literature, and comparative law as a special kind of IDS. (Of course, the underlying drive is often adventitious is purely intellectual terms – such as, the ideal of pan-European or pan-Indian or world unity or of imperial unity or of humanistic unity, the value of fraternity (desegregation and integration), the needs of the proselytisation of a religion or an ideology, and the like.)


      The fourth reason that may bring two or more disciplines together is methodological resemblance.  A method that has been found successful in one discipline may be analogically extended to other discipline. A well-known example is the extension of statistical methods which were originally devised for other fields to quantum physics.  Another example is historical reconstruction through comparison, a method that spread from philology (of literary texts) to linguistics, comparative mythology, and so on, and even comparative botany and zoology.  Linguistic structuralism has provided an impetus to cultural anthropology in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss.  Given the historical juncture at which human sciences and humanities find themselves in Indian today, another example of this kind suggests itself.  Today, the pursuit of these fields is almost wholly governed by Western models with no more than a cursory glance at the ancient Indian heritage.  This is a pity, even if we do not want to make this an issue of national prestige.  If there is no objection in principle to assimilating a whole technique (like plastic surgery or a whole herbal pharmacopia from Ayurveda into modern allopathic medicine, there could be no sense in refusing to sift through ancient works like the dharmashastra, sahitya-shastra, arthashastra, and see if we cannot have a more enriched methodological repertory - and a richer conceptual perspective.  Such a ‘search for roots’ (on the part of Indians) or ‘search for the Oriental light’ (on the part of Westerners) naturally has to bring together human sciences, humanities, and Indological studies.


      This brings me to the fifth and last reason that could and should motivate LDS, namely, the need for a philosophical perspective, where we have in mind the set of primitive and derived terms together with the set of primitive and derived propositions that are supposed to underlie any intellectual discipline.  In the higher reaches, where conceptual frameworks (sets of primitive terms) and basic assumptions (sets of primitive propositions) are at stake, the natural sciences and practical knowledge in the physical and life domains no less than the human sciences, human survey knowledge, humanities, and even practical knowledge in the human and humanistic domains move in the direction of philosophy.   If any scientist or technologist hotly denies that he has any concern with or use of philosophy, the philosopher can only wryly point out that this denial is itself a philosophical judgement open to philosophical debate and historian can slyly point out that many of the empirical sciences themselves were fathered by philosophers and originated as branches of philosophy.  The growth of philosophy, at least in the West, is in part of history of how philosophy shed parts of itself.  These parts grew into relatively autonomous domains and, in part, a history of philosophizing about already established domain (philosophy of history, philosophy of education, philosophy of environment, and so on).


The Problems and Opportunities


To begin with, there are the ‘human’ problems of undertaking, implementing, and training for IDS. Very often, an area of IDS is innovative and unrecognised, so finding funds and resources, motivated personnel, and adequate training facilities is a problem.  Overcoming indifference and resistance (even hostility) and keeping superficial enthusiasm or careerism in check are other problems.  One educational measure that has been proposed is the reorientation of undergraduate courses-avoidance of excessive and premature specialization, defining course content not solely in terms of disciplines but also in terms of problems, and teaching of more generalized techniques (like statistics of distribution and correlation, the use of electronic recording devices, field interview). The Sussex University model of schools and centres (as opposed to the traditional faculties and departments) is another step in the same direction at the post-graduate level.  In promoting IDS one need not devaluate study of the traditional kind within the confines of a discipline.  There is scope and need for both kinds of orientation.  Neither should be looked upon as a threat or an obstacle to the other kind.  Actually, we need not only discipline specialists, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary virtuosos, but also philosophizing (or popularizing) generalists.


      Are there any specific intellectual of methodological problems common and peculiar to IDS? There are some problems with IDS that are peculiar but not common to all of them.  Each of the five specific goals for IDS brings in its train a certain set of problems.  While this is not the appropriate place for going into them, we may glance at some of these problems.


1.      Understanding the specific in terms of the general: the physics of astronomy, the chemistry of life, the psychology of language; history/geography with an economic / political slant, for example. Here one is attempting to abstract a specific aspect from a complex whole without distorting the whole in its complexity and interrelatedness.  Doing this is not always easy.

2.      Application of the theoretical insights of sciences and humanities to a specific practical problem (such as, education, communication, product design, catering of food, or building a house) in the light of the relevant pieces of survey knowledge.  Here, the subject is inherently interdisciplinary, so to say, and must not be allowed to be dominated by any one of the converging disciplines-thus, education is not all applied psychology.

3.      Comparison across traditions in activities (such as art, religion, law, monetary systems) amenable to some human science or humanistic discipline: Here one has to carefully select the unit of comparison (single out works or art schools or both?), draw historical conclusions from history-oriented search for inheritance and influence or for migration and diffusion, draw evaluative and explanatory conclusions from function-oriented search for analogies, typologies, and universals.

4.      Comparing methodological notes in order to find whether solutions in one discipline may have a ‘lesson’ for another discipline.  Here one should avoid the temptation of looking for only ‘positive’ lessons-sometimes one may just as well learn how not to do something in your own discipline by looking at another discipline.

5.      Working out a philosophical analysis and critique of the selection of the basic concepts and propositions in a discipline or its specific ideological or regional tradition by relating to other collateral disciplines or traditions.  Here the methodological point of departure is a healthy respect for Occam’s razor (not multiply entities – whether conceptual or propositional) and Goedel’s warning (no system can be logically consistent and all-embracingly complete at the same time-one has to sacrifice either tidiness or completeness.


There are other problems that are common to IDS but not peculiar to them.  These are the problems of any discipline study-whether a deductive science, an empirical science, a discipline of survey knowledge, a humanistic discipline or a discipline of practical knowledge. Obviously, these general problems of data collection and collation, analysis and synthesis, the use of detailed models and incompletely defined ‘icons’ or seed ideas, absolute and relative validation need not detain us here.


One may now come finally to the problems that are both peculiar and common to IDS.  The fundamental problem is of course the transition from the multi-disciplinary  perspective underlying a dialogue between the followers of two or more disciplines through the truly interdisciplinary perspective underlying a monologue inside the head of a single person, finally to a dialogue of a truly interdisciplinary nature.  The situation is not unlike the transformation of an incorrigible monolingual to a true bilingual equally at home in the two languages and fully in a position to translate from either one to the other language.  Some translations (read: some intellectual reductions) are possible and legitimate; some are possible but of limited validity; other are noting short of gross distortions.  The failure to discriminate between these three alternative possibilities may be traceable either to the imperfect learning of the other tongue (read: imperfect understanding of the discipline which is not the person’s original discipline) or to the temptation to allow oneself to be dominated by the all-too-familiar mother-tongue or the all-too-fascinating other tongue (read: imposing the perspective of one or the other discipline uncritically).  A fuller consideration of this fundamental problem will inevitably take us back to the specific problems associated with each of the five goals of IDS.


            We have not separately spoken of the opportunities offered through IDS as distinct from the problems that challenge us.  We need not do so once we realize that each problem, when solved satisfactorily, harbours an opportunity within it.  The ‘visiting’ scientist or scholar or humanist or practioner may be able to see things in a novel and interesting way not always available to his ‘native’ counterpart.  Also, the visitor may often put some very elementary and therefore often basic questions tot he native who will thus be often forced to relearn and relearn better  something that he thinks he knows very well indeed.  IDS, if undertaken with a full sense of adventure combined with a full sense of responsibility, many provide the long-needed rejuvenation of the Indian academic scene with its caste boundaries, institutional stratifications, and chronic sense of boredom.  Indians need not always cross the seas for this rejuvenation, it should be enough that they cross the bounds of their discipline.




            This was published in Indian Journal of Social Science 1:1:65-75, 1988. Reprinted in : Journal of education and social change 3 : 2, Sept. 1989.